60 years of the Citroën DS

French innovations in style and design revolutionsed our concept of the car.

Daring design: the Citröen DS, France, 1955.Any visitor to the London Motor Show on October 19th, 1955 would not have lacked for interesting cars for the price of a ticket. There was the new 2.4 litre compact saloon from Jaguar, the latest MGA sports car and Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, plus a Sunbeam Rapier coupé with its exuberant (or vulgar) whitewall tyres. There was even a Daimler ‘Golden Zebra’ displayed by the famed coachbuilders Hooper for anyone who wanted to spend a vast amount of money on a gold-plated coupé with upholstery from an unfortunate animal. But even this paled in comparison with the vehicle innocuously billed as the ‘2-Litre Six-Seater saloon’ on the Citroën stand.

To the average British motorist of 60 years ago, the DS claimed to be a motor car but was clearly an escapee from Hammer film studios. Some visitors fled to the safe haven of the Standard-Triumph display, where the Vanguard Phase III was as reassuringly sensible as an army vest, but others stayed to marvel at a car that represented a new future. ‘All the joys of restful motoring are yours in the new Citroën “2-Litre”’, claimed the British market brochures, but the French sales slogan was rather more accurate. ‘Quand vous avez dit “Citroën”, vous avez tout dit’ (‘When you have said “Citroën”, there is nothing more to say’) and the DS rendered many Earls Court visitors speechless.

Citroën was not an unfamiliar marque in the UK; between 1926 and 1965 their assembly plant in Slough produced cars for the British and Commonwealth markets in order to circumvent swingeing import duties. For the previous 21 years their staple offering had been the Traction Avant range, familiar from newsreels and made when front-wheel drive was a novelty to the average Austin driver. This was augmented in 1954 by a Berkshire version of the 2CV, a favourite of the motoring press but regarded with suspicion by Morris Minor owners, who did not perceive the appeal in a car that looked like a mobile greenhouse. Readers of the Motor and Autocar would also have been aware of the DS from coverage of its French debut and they may have seen Gina Lollobrigida with the new Citroën on the cover of October’s Paris Match. But pictures alone could never compare with that encounter at the Earls Court show.

Citroën had been working on their Voiture à Grande Diffusion (VGD) project since the 1930s. Development continued in secret during the Second World War and it was in 1942 that the engineer Paul Magès proposed that hydraulic power could not only level the VGD’s suspension but also power the brakes, steering and transmission. By 1950 the prototype was renamed ‘Projet D’ and five years later, on October 5th, 1955, the DS was launched at the Paris Salon; by the end of that day Citroën had taken over 12,000 orders. 

It was the DS styling that caused the initial sensation, for even in repose it looked like a basking shark. In the immortal words of Roland Barthes’ 1957 essay ‘The New Citroën’:

It is obvious that the new Citroën has fallen from the sky in as much as it appears at first sight as a superlative object …The DS – the goddess – has all the features of one of those objects from another universe which have supplied fuel for the neomania of the 18th century and that of our own science fiction. 

The Traction Avant’s replacement made its debut at a time when ‘aerodynamics’ to the lay person often inferred the use of tail fins, especially on Detroit cars such as Ford’s Thunderbird or the second-generation Chevrolet Bel Air. But the new Citroën was almost entirely lacking in chrome direction, exaggerated wings or any form of adornment per se

Flaminio Bertoni, the company’s design maestro, wanted to create a car in which form and function coexisted in a perfect fusion and the coachwork of the DS was not merely incredibly aerodynamic but defined its own terms. Beneath his coachwork was the 1.9 litre Traction Avant engine driving the front wheels but that and the double chevron badge were the only familiar reference points. There was hydro-pneumatic suspension that allowed the driver to raise or lower the DS as road conditions demanded and hydraulic power for the semi-automatic transmission, steering and dual circuit brakes. At a time when a Rover or Wolseley would have been virtually naked without its hide trim and timber-decorated fascia, the Citroën delighted in its use of artificial materials. In place of a wooden fascia studded with Bakelite switches, the DS featured a one-piece moulding made from plastics. Indeed, André Lefebvre, the chief design engineer of Citroën, revelled in the fact that he was one of the first Frenchmen to wear a nylon shirt. 

The Citroën DS was a car that set out its own terms from the outset, down to the seemingly minutest detail. The doors were devoid of window frames and there were rear indicators designed to be in the eye line of following motorists when not a few British cars still used semaphore trafficators. In 1955 ‘winter motoring’ meant duffle coats and freezing but the DS sported a comprehensive heating and ventilation system, complete with ducts to the rear seat and dashboard-mounted fresh air vents. The slim pillars meant for excellent visibility, unlike peering through the porthole-like window of a UK-built rival, and the roof was constructed of fibreglass in order to lower the centre of gravity. Even the act of starting the engine caused any number of hissing noises and the unforgettable sight of the DS rising on its haunches.

A Slough-built version of the DS was launched in 1956, featuring leather trim and a walnut-veneered dashboard, but these concessions to British tastes only highlighted how different the Citroën was and indeed still is, for the ‘2-Litre’ transcended mere fashion and redefined the idea of what a car could represent. 

Andrew Roberts writes on the history of cinema and popular culture.